Websites for some of Britain’s biggest energy companies crashed on Thursday as consumers worried about the escalating cost of living crisis rushed to submit gas and electricity readings ahead of a 54 per cent rise in prices from April 1.
Consumer champions including Martin Lewis, founder of the Money Saving Expert website, have been advising households to submit their meter readings before Britain’s “energy price cap” rises by nearly £700 to £1,971 a year on average on Friday. The cap dictates bills for the 22mn households not on fixed-price energy deals.
But websites and phone lines for some of the country’s biggest energy providers, including British Gas, EDF Energy, Eon and ScottishPower, were unable to cope with the increased traffic on what had been dubbed national “meter reading day”, drawing criticism from consumer groups that companies had been aware that many households would require advice.
“Energy companies should have been prepared for higher numbers of customers getting in touch and should support any customers trying to submit their meter readings today,” said Adam French, consumer rights editor at Which?, the consumer group.
Greg Jackson, chief executive of Octopus Energy, Britain’s fifth biggest energy provider, tweeted that his company had 2,500 calls waiting just before lunchtime on Thursday compared with 150 on a “normal busy day”. But Jackson insisted that customers had five days to submit their readings.
Justina Miltienyte, head of policy at the price comparison site Uswitch.com, said supplier website issues were often temporary so consumers should try again later. In the meantime, they should take a photo of their readings “with a date stamp visible in the image as evidence”, Miltienyte said.
Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of Energy UK, a trade body for suppliers, said the panic proved how “scary these price rises are” for households, not just those on low incomes, and that “more needs to be done” to help protect consumers against high gas prices. Prices were high even before Russia’s assault on Ukraine but the volatility in commodity markets has since increased.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak in February announced a £9bn package to help with the cost of living crisis. This included a £150 council tax rebate, to be paid in April, for each property in England in bands A to D and a £200 loan to be applied to all electricity bills in October.
But the measures have been branded inadequate by opposition politicians and consumers groups, particularly given the price cap is forecast to rise again steeply in October.
The UK’s fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, said last week that it expected the cap to rise to more than £2,800 a year per household in October based on average usage, although some analysts forecast it will hit £3,000.
National Energy Action, a charity, said it believed 6.5mn households in Britain were living in “fuel poverty”, up from a previous estimate of 4mn at the start of October. If the price cap hits £3,000 a year in October, the NEA warned as many as 8.5mn households would not be able to afford their energy and heating bills.
“This is the biggest energy price shock in living memory,” said Adam Scorer, chief executive of National Energy Action, a charity.